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Tampa Bay’s defense struggled to generate a consistent pass rush and had its fair share of problems stopping the run last season.
That’s not a good combination for a defense aspiring to be one of the best in the National Football League.
This time last year, the Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s troops were coming off a season where they ranked No. 1 overall in the NFL.
Not only did they fail to stay on top, the Bucs defense fell short of finishing ranked in the top 10 for the first time in a decade. Tampa Bay’s defense ranked 17th overall in 2006.
The Bucs entered the 2007 offseason determined to improve their run defense, where they ranked 17th last season, and pass rush, an area that yielded just 19 sacks from Tampa Bay’s defensive linemen a year ago.
The Bucs moved quickly, firing defensive line coach Jethro Franklin after one year on the job and replacing him with former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer.
Tampa Bay might have taken a step back before it took a step in the right direction on the pass rush front when defensive lineman Dewayne White signed with the Detroit Lions in free agency.
White, who recorded five sacks last season, signed a five-year, $29 million deal with Detroit. The Bucs were interested in re-signing White, but they felt he was too inconsistent and had not established himself as a full-time starter.
With White gone, Tampa Bay turned its attention to Miami Dolphins free agent Kevin Carter.
Tampa Bay decided to invest in proven talent as opposed to potential by signing Carter, 33, to a four-year, $25 million deal. However, that lucrative contract included no signing bonus and only a portion of his base salary for the 2007 season was guaranteed.
Carter has recorded 97.5 career sacks and is versatile enough to play defensive end or tackle. In comparison, White has notched 14 career sacks in four seasons in the NFL.
With defensive ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires still under contract, Tampa Bay has Carter taking most of his snaps at the under tackle position, which had a void created when the Bucs traded Booger McFarland to Indianapolis last October in exchange for Indy’s 2007 second-round draft pick.
Some are concerned that Tampa Bay’s defense, particularly its defensive line, is too long in the tooth, and the fact that three of the team’s four current starters along the defensive line – Carter, Rice and Spires – will be over the age of 33 by the time September rolls around supports that notion.
However, Tampa Bay looks at the fact that three of its current starting defensive linemen – Carter, Chris Hovan and Rice — are former first-round draft picks and that Carter and Rice have combined for 218 career sacks.
Depending on what Tampa Bay does in the draft this weekend, Rice and/or Spires could be gone before the regular season begins.
Rice, who is less than 10 sacks away from breaking Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon’s franchise sack record, notched just two quarterback takedowns before being placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury last season. He is in the final year of his contract with the Bucs.
Rice’s $7.250 million base salary and $10.450 million cap value make him the highest-paid player on Tampa Bay’s roster. The Bucs can create approximately $7.5 million in cap room by releasing or trading Rice.
While some rumors have suggested Rice could be dealt to Detroit, a look at Tampa Bay’s current roster suggests such a move is unlikely since the Bucs really don’t have anyone to replace Rice.
Of course, that could change if the Bucs come away with a speed-rushing defensive end like Clemson’s Gaines Adams, Purdue’s Anthony Spencer or Michigan’s Lamar Woodley in next weekend’s draft.
The Bucs could move Carter over to right end if they parted ways with Rice, but that would leave a void at the three technique position, an area Ellis Wyms failed to solidify when he replaced McFarland as a starter last year.
Tampa Bay signed linebacker/defensive end Patrick Chukwurah to a five-year contract during the offseason. Could he replace Rice on the right side on a full-time basis? Probably not. Chukwurah was brought in to be more of a situational-type pass rusher. The Bucs are getting a good look at Chukwurah on a full-time basis as he replaces Rice as the starting right end while No. 97 recovers from shoulder surgery.
Wyms has a $3.9 million base salary and $4.350 million cap value in 2007. That’s awfully pricey for a player who produced just five sacks last season. However, because they lack depth at defensive tackle, the Bucs might not be able to afford to part ways with Wyms.
Spires has a $3.467 million cap value. He’s been fairly reliable against the run, but the Bucs would like to add more of a pass rusher to the left end spot. Chukwurah could be called on to provide the pass rush Tampa Bay is looking for on that side, or the Bucs could look for a solution in the draft.
Tampa Bay’s 2006 fifth-round draft selection, Julian Jenkins, didn’t have much of an impact on defense last year, which brought out some critics since the Bucs picked Jenkins ahead of DE Mark Anderson, who eventually landed with Chicago and recorded 12 sacks for the Bears during the regular season.
The Bucs have played Jenkins at defensive tackle and end, but they hope to find him a permanent home in 2007.
Despite Tampa Bay's lack of depth at defensive end and tackle, Charles Bennett, Jovan Haye, Darrell Campbell, Jon Bradley and Kenny Smith will be fighting for roster spots in 2007.
One player to keep an eye on is Hovan, who was Tampa Bay’s best defensive lineman last year. The fact that he plays nose tackle doesn’t allow him to be a dominant pass rusher, but Hovan does have pass rush ability.
If the Bucs fail to come away with a defensive tackle on the first day of the draft, they could move Hovan to the under tackle spot and slide one of their draft picks or another player into the one technique spot.
This year’s draft lacks depth at the defensive tackle position. The Bucs will consider drafting the top two defensive tackles in this draft – Amobi Okoye and Alan Branch.
However, it doesn’t appear likely that Tampa Bay would draft either player unless wide receiver Calvin Johnson and tackle Joe Thomas are off the board when the Bucs pick at No. 4.
The Bucs will take a hard look at several defensive tackles in the later rounds, including Florida’s Marcus Thomas and Arkansas’ Keith Jackson.
If Spencer falls to Tampa Bay in the second round, expect the Bucs to jump all over this athletic defensive end. The Bucs will also consider drafting Woodley and Central Michigan’s Dan Buzuin, among others.
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